- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2018

Garrett Roe missed the initial phone call.

The Virginia native woke up one December morning in his apartment in Switzerland to find he had missed an overnight call from USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson.

Roe, who grew up playing the sport on rinks in Northern Virginia, knew what Johannson wanted to discuss.

That afternoon, Roe was a nervous wreck as he eagerly waited to find out if he had made the U.S. Olympic hockey team. The 29-year-old journeyman had built an overseas career in professional hockey by not thinking too far ahead, so he tried not to get his hopes up.

But this? This was the Olympics.

Roe just had to wait for Johannson to call.

“Those … hours were pretty excruciating,” Roe said. “You kind of just sit around waiting. It kind of seemed like forever.”

Then, the phone rang. Roe’s dream came true. He was on the team.

This year, because the NHL pulled its players out of the Olympic Games, lesser-known athletes such as Roe are getting their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent the Stars and Stripes.

On Friday night in South Korea, Roe will walk into the opening ceremonies with the rest of his teammates (livestreaming online on NBCOlympics.com at 6 a.m.). His wife and family will be in attendance.

To get to this point, Roe has spent his life dedicated to hockey, making decisions along the way that most others don’t get — or have — to make.

A life overseas

Roe, a 5-foot-9 center for the Swiss professional team Ev Zug, was 24 when he decided to move to Austria before the 2013-14 season. The club EC Red Bull Salzburg of the Austria Hockey League made an enticing offer, and Roe was ready for a change.

Roe was two years into his American Hockey League career with the Adirondack Flyers, Philadelphia’s minor league affiliate. He was selected in the seventh round of the 2008 draft by the Los Angeles Kings. But after a four-year college career, he ended up in the Flyers’ farm system.

Going to Europe, he said, was “one of those decisions you make in the moment. … That’s part of the fun in it.”

Before that decision, Roe hadn’t been having much fun playing hockey.

Roe wracked up 40 points (eight goals and 32 assists) in his first year in Adirondack, a promising debut. He expected his role to expand the following year. But, he soon found out, the sport’s politics can be complicated.

The next year, the NHL went through a 119-day lockout over a number of issues — eventually resulting in a 48-game season instead of the standard 82. While the NHL players were locked out, athletes who were still eligible for the AHL could compete with their clubs.

This meant top prospects in the Flyers system spent time in the AHL when they normally wouldn’t have. The pecking order changed, and Roe became frustrated. He finished the year with 26 points in only 57 games played.

“After the year, you start to have a bad taste in your mouth and you’re kind of looking for a change,” Roe said.

Roe was a free agent and could have signed with a different NHL organization, but he wanted a fresh start.

Moving overseas meant learning new teammates, a new language and a new culture.

More important, it meant being in a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend — now his wife — Brittany, who was a year away from completing her master’s degree. She eventually joined him in Europe, and each year since, Roe has played for a different club — moving from Austria to Germany, Sweden and now Switzerland. He has had success in each stint and says he is enjoying the lifestyle.

Looking back, Roe wonders if his decision to abandon the American minor leagues was rash. It effectively ended any chance he had of making the NHL, his boyhood dream.

“If I could do it all over again, I’d probably make a different decision,” Roe said. “I’d try to stay at home and try to better myself and believe in myself. But I didn’t do that at the time I think as I should have.”

Growing up with hockey

Roe’s father, Larry, recalled his son being better at soccer than hockey.

“He was very high up the food chain in soccer,” Larry Roe said.

At 15, Roe had to choose: Leave Virginia for a developmental soccer school in Florida or the hockey academy Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, spawning ground for some of the world’s best hockey players, including NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews.

Hockey won out. Roe loved the sport, in part, because of his family’s influence. His father founded the Reston Raiders, a youth hockey team in Northern Virginia, and has been coaching for more than 30 years. Roe’s elder brothers, Kurstin and Ryan, also grew up playing hockey.

“He had great speed and was a great skater,” said Rod Collins, his U16 coach at Shattuck. “He got a lot of opportunities to score, but he wasn’t always successful. It used to frustrate him, but I see by his stats now that he’s doing quite well and learned to play the game.”

By the time Roe finished college at St. Cloud State in Minnesota, he was the university’s third all-time leader in points. He also created an impact at the college level immediately, racking up 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists) during his freshman year.

“He’s a very, very competitive kid,” said Eric Rud, then an assistant coach at St. Cloud State. “He’s very, very driven. He’s very hard to defend because offensively, he’s a little bit of a dynamo where he’s hard to contain.”

Fitting the Team USA mold

Roe’s college coach, St. Cloud State’s Bob Motzko, coaches the U.S. national junior team, and he was with Johannson when he made the call to Roe.

Motzko, whenever asked, would share his enthusiasm for Roe with Johannson. The NHL officially announced it wouldn’t participate in Pyeongchang in April, and Johannson set about recruiting players for a squad. Around October, Johannson approached Motzko about Roe.

“I told him he’d be a great candidate to have there,” Motzko said. “But Garrett, by his performance and being one of the top scorers [in Switzerland] put himself in that position.”

Johannson died unexpectedly Jan. 21, and Team USA has said they want to win in his honor.

After all, Johannson was responsible for selecting the team. And he wasn’t just looking for skillful players. He wanted high-character guys to make up Team USA.

As a result, the roster is made up of players with different experiences and a variety of backgrounds. Fifteen members, including Roe, play overseas, three are in the AHL and four are in college. This is the first time since 1994 that NHL players won’t be represented in the Olympics.

“This is a group of players we selected that we think are special for a lot of different reasons,” Team USA coach Tony Granato said. “There are stories that we know about all of them that hopefully everyone will know in a couple of weeks. There’s great character.”

Granato said he has closely studied Roe’s game over the past few months and he fits right in. He made an impression at the Deutschland Cup, an international tournament in November that was essentially an Olympics tryout for the players involved.

“I loved his practice habits and energy in the room,” Granato said. “I think he’s a kid who understood what we were looking for in the passion and energy side of it. I think he’s going to fit in great.”

A wide-open tournament

It’s not just the U.S. team missing NHL players. Without stars like Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, rosters throughout the tournament are mysteries. Russia and Canada are still the favorites, but if ever an underdog could repeat 1980, when the U.S. team upset Russia, this is the year.

Roe said Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 squad, sent Team USA a video message last month. “It was really cool,” Roe said.

The U.S. hasn’t won a gold medal in hockey since, and has won only two golds in the sport ever. Oddsmakers peg the U.S. as 10-1 underdogs to win.

Winning gold this year in hockey would be a stunner, but the U.S. is expected to medal or even dominate in other sports, with skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White among the top American prospects.

Some Americans will have the opportunity to medal for other countries. Hockey forward Mike Testwuide and figure skater Alexander Gamelin hold dual citizenship in South Korea and will represent that country in the games. Floyd Hall, a figure skater competing for Brazil, is also American.

NHL players, meanwhile, still aren’t happy about sitting this one out. Capitals defenseman and two-time former Olympian Brooks Orpik said it was disappointing that American stars like Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews will miss out on their first opportunity to compete on the Olympic stage. Capitals star Ovechkin briefly thought about defying the NHL and playing for Russia anyway, before quashing that idea in September.

Orpik said hopes the NHL changes its mind for the 2022 games in China. In the meantime, Orpik is looking forward to watching the U.S. compete. He’s friends with members on the team, including captain Brian Gionta.

“I [know] a couple of guys that I didn’t think were going to play hockey this year,” Orpik said. “And they wound up on the U.S. team. It’ll be real fun to watch those guys.”

There is a chance, too, that the Olympic stage will create opportunities — perhaps in the NHL — for others on the U.S. national team. Even if it doesn’t, many are just glad for the chance to represent their country.

Teams begin competing Wednesday, and the U.S. will first take on Slovenia.

“I think this is going to turn out to be a special Olympics because you’ve got a large group of guys who probably thought their window had passed,” Motzko said. “They were never going to be a part of the Olympic experience. … It opened the door for a group of guys who are really going to appreciate this experience and the opportunity in front of them.”

Count Roe among that group.

It’s still hitting him that he will be participating in the opening ceremony. He said he doesn’t know what to expect.

“The date can’t come soon enough at this point,” he said. “It just seems so far away still, but it’s not. That’s what makes it so exciting right now.”

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